Mumbai Birdwatchers’ Club: Birding by the beach- Bhuigaon, Vasai

Beach Birder Line

Birders just need an excuse to start birdwatching. Even with the first birdwalk of the season starting at the all-time favorite, Bhandup Pumping Station (part of the Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary) where we were sizzled to a crisp with the heat and humidity such that pakoras (fried dumplings) become the popular term to refer to each other, the spirits never once dampened (even with all the sweat!) and there was plenty of demand for the next walk. It was ‘passage migrant’ season after all (Passage migrants to a particular area are typically birds that do not linger around very long, spending a few days to perhaps a month before heading to their wintering or breeding grounds where they spend a longer duration of time probably spanning a few months. For Mumbai and surrounds, typically just before and after winter tend to be suitable conditions for seeing passage migrants to the region).

We discussed and debated locations, and hearing of good sightings from Vasai and thanks to the availability of our coordinators from there, our next location was finalized, Bhuigaon beach. This location is considered to be one of the best birding spots in the Vasai region because apart from the relatively undisturbed beach that attracts waders and other shorebirds, there is a good mix of woodland, grassland and marshy habitats that you would also pass through before accessing the beach that also offer interesting sightings such as buttonquails and crakes. How this mix of habitats would impact birding I’ll explain ahead.

I was scheduled to also assist in coordinating the walk along with Kuldeep Chaudhari, Mandar Khadilkar and Varun Satose but some coughing and sneezing a few days before the walk had me watchful of committing to any travel. Luckily, just a day before, the irritating sniffling had gone, and I was all set to join for the walk. So before the crack of dawn, I was up at 4:30 AM, to catch the 5:12 AM train from Andheri to Nallasopara station, a journey of about 45 minutes. At Nallasopara, I met more birders, Ronit, Arun and Mohit who were joining us. From there we took the bus to meet everyone else at the Bhuigaon Church bus stop from where we would all proceed for the walk.

Once we got down from the bus and before the other participants arrived, we walked up ahead a bit and could hear the lilting ‘Tu-hee, Tu-hee’ call that announced the arrival of a local migrant, the Grey-bellied Cuckoo. The call was being heard within the township itself, and moments later, Ronit spotted it and just a seconds later, we saw the bird take flight to disappear amongst the buildings. Participants began to come in by that time along with Mandar, Kuldeep and Varun. There were over 40 participants by the time everyone came so as was the usual practice, we split up into groups, each of the coordinators along with a few experienced birders leading and interpreting sightings for participants.

The first area we came across was a marshland habitat, and through our binoculars and cameras, we could see a few Common and Green Sandpipers moving amongst the shallow waters, with Little Ringed Plovers to give them company. One of the birders saw a Jacobin Cuckoo too, well-known as the heralder of the Indian south-west monsoon, making the long journey from Africa just a few days before the arrival of the rains here. What many people may not be aware of, is that a population of these birds may actually be residing within the country (during the summer months, largely restricted to the southern states) with the rest heading back to Africa as the summer arrives here. There is still so much more to discover about the migration journeys they take. But to get back, the sightings continued, with three species of herons, the Indian Pond Heron, Striated Heron and a juvenile of the Black-crowned Night Heron, all well-known wetland associates. We saw Green Bee-Eaters perched on the wire cables, and in fact, later on ahead, saw a pair mating, a nice natural history moment (The more modest of you, please shy away from the next image).

Green-Bee-eaters-mating

Record shot only, apologies for the quality (they were at a distance and we didn’t want to disturb them by going closer at this time :))

As we moved on ahead, the habitat gradually gave way to a mix of woodland and grassland, and with the change of habitat, the species mix changed a bit too. Participants began to sight larks, among them the Rufous-tailed Lark and the Oriental skylark. Barn swallows became a common sight flying overhead and perched on wires (but almost always against the light!). However there was something unusual going on today, nearly all the birds were giving us birders an unusually wide berth, being seen only for brief glimpses including a very shy Lesser Whitethroat and a Sykes’s warbler, both winter migrants to the region.

IMG_4486

The Lesser Whitethroat belongs to the genus ‘Sylvia’, collectively known as the Typical Warblers belonging to the Old World (Africa, Europe & Asia). Most of these warblers feed on insects and can often be seen in comparatively drier areas with thorn, scrub and grassland as opposed to thick forest. This species is a winter migrant here coming here from further north in Asia, likely from countries such as Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan where it breeds. Image credits: Makarand Saraf

A Eurasian Wryneck, a unique bird, the only member of its family and a migrant to the region made the shortest of appearances (You’ll see why it gets its name through this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LD52NLJw4Pk). Thankfully, a flamboyant Common Hoopoe (the bird the storm Hudhud was named after) and a bold Black-winged Kite decided to change things up, and posed for us birders. And then a group of birders including Mandar and Ronit saw some more bold individuals, this time, Grey-Necked Buntings, another winter migrant visiting from the colder climbs of Northern Asia.

Black-shouldered-kite

A Black-winged Kite stands sentry. They can often be seen hovering over grasslands in search of prey, a distinctive behavior.

We trudged on, as the heat and humidity started to pick up a bit with the rising sun, a small hamlet on our left, and the shade of a few trees providing some relief, as we sighted Purple and Purple-Rumped Sunbirds and Baya Weavers. Spotted Doves crooned away in the background, Plain and Ashy Prinias made blink-and-miss appearances as we ventured on, and gradually the woodland gave way to the wide expanse of the Bhuigaon beach.

Kuldeep Woodland Bhuigaon

Kuldeep points out some Baya Weavers to the participants

The tide still seemed to be far away, so we could not sight many birds first up. Mandar and his group which were further up ahead had managed to get a glimpse of a soaring Osprey, a magnificent aerial predator adept in hunting a variety of small to medium-sized marine prey, especially fish. We were not so lucky, but did manage to get a glimpse through our binoculars of a rich-chocolate brown Brahminy Kite very far away. Unusually this species is not as abundant on Mumbai’s coastline as you see just when you start heading south of the Mumbai and Greater Mumbai region. Would be very happy to hear opinions on why this is so.

Mandar Beach Bhuigaon

Mandar showing and explaining the difference between Sand Martins and Asian Palm Swifts

Now we could see a few Sand Martins and Asian palm swifts circling above us, the broad wing shape and pale underparts of the martin and the pencil-like body shape and the thinner, aerodynamic wings of the palm swift helping to differentiate these fast-moving birds. Some distance away just at the edge of our binoculars’ vision, we could spot a few sand plovers (rather difficult to differentiate between Greater and Lesser Sandplovers at the distance). We noticed a slightly larger wader and the distinctive upturned bill shape and its size made it easy to identify as a terek sandpiper. Small densely packed flocks of stints also circled the sea beyond.

Varun and birders beach

Varun along with enthusiastic participants

Poonam Shailaja Ladies Bhuigaon

We take a pit stop on the beach

With no comforting shade, it was amazing to see passion trumping the sweltering conditions, as the participants walked on, still asking questions of senior birders and MBC coordinators and keeping a weather eye out for those waders we all wanted to see. Some of the more interprid participants such as Poonam Kakodkar even went a step further documenting some of the marine life.

Washed up Jellyfish

A large jellyfish washed up on the beach. Image Credits: Poonam Kakodkar

Cuttle fish Eggs

Cuttlefish Eggs. Image by Poonam Kakodkar

Finally, we reached a part of the beach that was a little less rocky, where the tide had made more progress than elsewhere. This allowed us to finally see a few more details on some of the waders that were so far away earlier. We could see a mix of Greater and Lesser Sand Plovers, Little Stints and a flying Western Reef Egret spotted by Kuldeep. And then we see another bird, a small one the size of most coastal waders, but whiter than all the others. As it so happens, that is exactly the field mark that helps in differentiating this particular wader from the others, those bright white underparts and black legs made it clear we had a Sanderling in our midst. The bird is actually quite common here on Vasai’s relatively undisturbed coasts (though as Kuldeep informed me, the last 10-15 years have seen a fair amount of erosion of the beaches here), but still, it was a nice sighting as this solo individual foraged along the edge of the tide, pecking away at the sand with its short bill, looking for small invertebrates and all the participants had a clear view of the bird even though it was at some distance.

WhatsApp Image 2017-10-09 at 09.57.28

Image of the same species by Kuldeep a day before the walk (Yep, he was there :))

With this sighting, we decided to call it a day and do a quick recap of all the sightings. Imagine our shock when we find out that over 80 species have been recorded during our entire walk! On a supposedly ‘quiet’ day!

But this is exactly what I alluded to earlier, because Bhuigaon provides a mix of habitats that I shared above, the bird diversity naturally here is high. And that is why this was such a satisfying walk, tired and sweaty though we all may be 🙂

Bhuigaon Group Photo

Image Credits: Akshay Shinde

Checklist of the birds seen during the walk: https://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S39613640

How to reach:

You can take the bus from Nallasopara Station (West) towards Bhuigaon village. Buses are available usually every 15 minutes. Ask for the Bhuigaon Church bus stop which is the last stop and from thereon you can ask anyone to direct you towards the way of Bhuigaon beach. Remember to start keeping an eye out once you cross the township, as the road passes through marshlands. From there, the road leads straight to the beach. Try and manage the timing of your visit to approximately 2 hours before the high tide sets in the for most conducive conditions for seeing waders & shorebirds.

Location in Google Maps: https://goo.gl/fraipM

Link to the Facebook Group of the Mumbai Birdwatchers’ Club: https://www.facebook.com/groups/mumbaibirdwatchersclub/

Mumbai Birdwatchers’ Club: Uran and the Quest for the Common Shelduck

birders-at-uran-cover

I had just returned from Dehradun a few weeks back to find the atmosphere in Mumbai’s birding circles electric. Much of this was coming from that amazing sighting in Vasai, the red-breasted merganser, the first authentic record of this species in India. Almost every birder spread out over our metropolis (as well as people from Bengaluru, Kolkata, and several other locations) had made a beeline for this bird and it had been a very cooperative subject giving good views to all who visited including participants of the Mumbai Birdwatchers’ Club (MBC) walk the week before.

To keep the momentum going, we decided to hold another bird walk on the very first day of 2017. The location initially was the Bhandup Pumping Station (BPS). There was some excitement there about a week before this planned walk when a solitary Common Shelduck was spotted and photographed there. This might be only the 2nd record of this species (pending confirmation) from the Mumbai region. However, the bird was not seen later, even by those visiting the same day. In any case, BPS is always a happy ‘birding’ ground and with the likes of Adesh Shivkar leading the walk, any bird enthusiast would be in for a fantastic experience.

And then, just 2 days before the walk, Mayuresh Khatavkar, another well-known birder gave the big news. The common shelduck was seen again, but this time in Uran. A flurry of activity, and the destination of the walk was instantly changed, to give every birder a chance to see this rarity.

Kuldeep and I would be assisting in the co-ordination of the walk, so we headed to the meeting point early along with two more participants of the walk, Ronit Dutta and Mita Gala. Shortly, we reached the Jasai wetlands, also the meeting point on one of the earlier MBC birdwalks. This time though, they were flooded with the high tide still receding, so while waiting for the other participants to arrive, we birded from the road itself.

The flamingoes were not there this time around, but many of the waders we had seen the last time around were, including black-tailed godwits, little stints, painted storks, common greenshank, marsh sandpipers among a few others. As a few of the participants arrived, almost as if to compensate for the flamingoes, we noticed a very large congregation of pied avocets in the distance. In the early morning mist, their numbers had not been apparent, but together with the local fisherman working in the area and a lone Eurasian marsh harrier doing sorties, the flock often took flight, numbering nearly 150 by our estimate.

pied-avocets-sunrise-flight-web

Adesh arrived as well, and with a few more participants coming in, approximately 30 of us were treated to these pied avocets flying across the rising sun. After everyone had a good look at most of the species present, we decided to move on to Panje.

As always, we drove slow keeping an eye for various species. We saw some of the usual suspects, Asian openbill stork, glossy ibis, white-eared bulbul, Siberian stonechat as well as a few other species. Then as I was driving, a raptor flew across the road just a few feet ahead of our vehicle. A medium-sized body, long tail, small rounded head, and we realized we were dealing with another harrier. But with its pale grey body, whitish underparts and dark primaries, we realized this may not be the ubiquitous Eurasian marsh harrier. We instantly got down from the car, but it had made its way deeper into the grassland. Our initial impression was a Montagu’s or Pallid harrier male (the Hen harrier is not as common to the region, though also a possibility) but we were unable to conclude the ID.

Soon, we reached the designated spot at Panje and began our birding, this time focusing on the wetlands ahead which were full of waterfowl and a few waders as well. Adesh once again did his bit, setting up the scope, focusing on an individual bird, asking participants to identify it, and then going to explain specific features of the bird. One of the highlights in one such discussion was the ‘butterscotch’ rump of the common teal, a feature not many participants would likely forget anytime soon 🙂

birders-at-uran-2

Ronit had brought along a scope as well so Kuldeep along with a few other participants had decided to try their luck in getting a sight of the common shelduck. As I caught up with them, they were smiling and I knew they had gotten their prize. It was well outside the usual binocular range, so I had a look through Ronit’s scope as well, my excitement barely contained to have a look at this potential lifer. Only to find it wasn’t there!

Much to the chuckling of Ronit and Kuldeep, I threatened that I wouldn’t allow the common shelduck as part of our eBird list until I had a decent look at it 😀 Ronit was good enough to understand my desire to see this bird, so a few minor adjustments later, he said he had the bird back in sight of the scope. With some trepidation, I looked again. The scope was trained at a grass mound in the middle of the wetlands, and I couldn’t see much initially, but then I noticed some white behind the grass. And then a prominent pink bill. Slowly, this beauty of a lifer came into view.

Adesh and the rest of the participants had now caught up with us as well. After getting a quick idea of where Ronit had his scope pointed, within seconds, the bird was within the sight of Adesh’s scope as well. One by one, each of the participants had a look at the bird. Adesh once again pointed out the specific characteristics of the bird, including the upward curvature of the tip of the bill, something which wasn’t obvious even in illustrated plates of the bird in the guide book. We weren’t sure at this point of time about the records of this species in Mumbai. But noted naturalist and birdwatcher, Sunjoy Monga has pointed out to at least one prior record of a small flock of common shelducks at the Tulsi lake in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park sighted by Charles McCann (the exact year is not very clear, possibly 1916 or 1917). In any case, the bird is definitely a rarity for the region.

This turned out to be a very gracious bird too as while we were watching it, it decided to do a fly-by moving to the wetlands on the other side of the road giving some participants a fantastic view and giving the eagle-eyed photographers a chance to get a shot of it in flight which also let us know conclusively that bird is a female going by the less prominent breast band and lacking the knob on the bill seen in the male.

img_3967_

Photo Credits: Viraj Khorjuwekar

With more sightings of different species such as the Caspian tern, grey heron, garganey, northern pintail, northern shoveler and even the ruddy shelduck, we were thoroughly sated as a group. A few of us who had also decided to give a quick try in the drier areas of Panje for the Caspian plover got two additional bonuses. One was the common shelduck giving us another fly-by back towards the original wetlands we saw in the morning (The few of us are indebted to one of the participants, Chirag Ahuja, as he first saw the bird take flight from a distance). The second bonus (no, we didn’t see the Caspian plover unfortunately) was another skulker, the slaty-breasted rail at rest near a reed patch close to some houses. This again was thanks to the dedication of a few of the participants such as Nayana Amin, Roozbeh Gazdar and a few others who were determined to check this small area.

slaty-breasted-rail-web

As we headed back to our vehicles, we were informed some members of the group who were birding near the road including Kuldeep and Ronit had been treated to the grand, relaxed flight of a Peregrine falcon! And even after we left the place, we were treated to sights of more raptors on the road, the common kestrel, pallid harrier (this time it flew right over our heads, perhaps the same bird from the morning who had decided to be generous with us), oriental honey buzzard as well as the Indian spotted eagle close to the Jasai stop we had made in the morning.

With MBC, the birding never ends 🙂

Birdlist at Jasai, Uran: https://goo.gl/ICIeV6
Birdlist at Panje, Uran: https://goo.gl/lF4du1

Guide to the location can be viewed in the previous blog to the same location.

Link to the Facebook group for the Mumbai Birdwatchers’ Club where details of each walk are posted: https://www.facebook.com/groups/mumbaibirdwatchersclub/

Mumbai Birdwatchers’ Club: Uran, Navi Mumbai: 6th November, 2016

jasai-birdwatching

The MBC group at Jasai


I was not surprised when the location that was announced for the next bird walk on Sunday, the 6th of November, 2016 turned out to be Uran, Navi Mumbai. Why? As mentioned in the previous blog, Uran had been particularly popular  since the last couple of weeks, because of two species in particular. One was of course the Indian skimmer, an endangered tern species (usually restricted to freshwater habitats) that I had the fortune of seeing on the same day as the BPS Birdwalk. The other of course, was the bird I had gone to Uran in search of, the Caspian plover, a rare migrant which has only a handful of records in India. And it was not just these, there were reports of other rarities, the grasshopper warbler, Asian desert warbler and even bristled grassbird. No surprise then, that Uran was hot property!

This walk was co-ordinated by Adesh Shivkar, Mandar Khadilkar, Avinash Bhagat, Clara Correia, Mayuresh Khatavkar, names for which the birding community needed no introductions, their collective birding and conservation experience, staggering to say the least. A testament to this is that as soon as the notification for the next bird walk was put up, the MBC team was swamped with registrations. Initially, the plan was to restrict group size to 30. However, since this was among the first bird walks, it was decided to increase this limit, and while the number of registration requests were still higher, over 80 participants finally ended up attending the bird walk. The plan would be to meet at the Dastan Faata at Jasai to bird for a little while near the marshes there, and then break up into smaller groups, gradually make our way to Panje village, where most of the sightings reports above had happened.

Since there were going to be some political rallies near the Dadar/Sion area, I decided to drive there via the Santacruz-Chembur Link Road going through Mankhurd, Vashi and then to Navi Mumbai. Accompanying me were Vikrant Choursiya and Jyoti James. We reached Jasai at about 6:45 AM, and were surprised to already see a group of 30+ people in the marshes. With their scopes, binoculars and telephoto lenses, there was no question as to what tribe this group belonged. Parking the car close to the others, we stepped down into the boggy marshes. As we neared, we spotted Mayuresh, Adesh and several other birders with their binoculars and scopes trained to a bevy of wetland birds in the marshes. Front and centre, were a group of 200 odd Greater Flamingoes, composed mostly of immature individuals. Other numerous waders included black-tailed godwits, marsh sandpipers, glossy ibises, black-winged stilts, common redshanks and a host of waterfowl in the distance including ruddy shelducks, northern pintails, northern shovelers among many other species.

flamingoes-morning

Greater flamingoes at the Jasai marshes, with black-winged stilts in the foreground

As we watched them, more of our number joined us, and when the group had reached close to the expected size, Adesh gathered us all together, giving a quick orientation on the purpose of reviving the Mumbai Birdwatchers’ Club, stressing on building a community of like-minded people going forward. Following that were a quick round of introductions and it was interesting to give faces to the people many of us had enthusiastically discussed birding with on Whatsapp and Facebook groups. The introductions done, the birding continued. More interesting sightings took place, including raptors such as Western Marsh Harriers, and an Osprey as well.

All this while, the co-ordinators took care to not only show different species, but also elaborate on their identification characters, behavior and migration patterns. Standing in the group close to Adesh, he talked about among other things, the separating characters of black-tailed and bar-tailed Godwits, the plainer back of the former (relatively more scaly in the Bar-tailed), as well as the propensity of the Bar-tailed Godwits to be seen largely in coastal habitats rather than freshwater ones. He also talked about the migration patterns of the bee-eaters, the blue-cheeked bee-eaters more as passage migrants seen in the Mumbai region around October/November, while the blue-tailed bee-eaters are seen typically from August/September, their numbers steadily rising with the onset of winter, and continue to be seen till around April. Additionally, Adesh kept us birders on our toes by focusing the scope on a particular species, and then asking us to identify it with characters. This was an enjoyable exercise as there is no better way than this to learn from seniors in the field. The species tested on included the common sandpiper (a diagnostic character being the white shoulder patch) and the lesser sand plover (characters include the smaller bill, grayish legs, and absence of any collar or eye-ring to separate from other small plovers). Likewise, I could see Mandar, Avinash, Clara and Mayuresh engaging other budding birders.

little-ringed-plover

A little ringed plover without its distinctive dark eye-mask and breast collar, signaling this individual is in non-breeding plumage

After a good amount of birding, some of the groups decided to move to Panje. Avinash and Clara headed out with some of the smaller groups first and gradually the rest of us also got into our cars. Adesh decided we could also stop en route close to some reeds where we were likely to see some warbler activity. Unfortunately, once we reached the spot, the habitat was found to have been dried up and levelled. The Uran area has been in the eye of a storm since the past many years. With the airport coming in the vicinity and the Navi Mumbai Special Economic Zone, many of the wetland habitats hosting hundreds of resident and migratory species have been lost to endless construction of structures including roads and flyovers. Off and on, cases of poaching are also heard of here including of the famous flamingoes. Some dedicated birdwatchers and environmentalists have been fighting for years here for the conservation of the habitat and the avian residents, and continue to do so, in the face of ever increasing pressure on the land. Uran has been prolific in providing some amazing bird records over the years, testament to the diversity of the habitat, so documenting the avifauna here has become more important than ever before.

Continuing with our journey, we slowly made our way to Panje, birding most of the way. Where the natural habitat was still preserved, we saw among many birds, the Siberian stonechat, Indian roller, scaly-breasted munias, rosy starlings. Avinash and others spotted a greater spotted eagle en route. A birding couple even saw a tawny eagle.

On reaching Panje, once again we parked our car outside the access road, and proceeded to meet up with the others. Panje typically is a mix of woodland and wetland habitat and it was in the dried bed of the wetlands that the bird everyone was looking for, the Caspian plover had been seen. We walked along the trail, keenly scanning on our right to see the presence of any plover. I should mention here that after failing to sight the Caspian plover on my first visit, I had made another quick trip here prior to this bird walk to Uran with Saurabh, Amey and Prachi with the intention of sighting the plover. After much searching, Amey had spotted a group of three plovers facing us on his scope. He noticed the middle one was slightly larger and had buffish underparts, pointing out that this might be our elusive quarry. Taking a note of its position, we ventured closer but again couldn’t sight it, and it was only after much more intensive searching, we saw it at a closer distance and I was able to take a few record shots. Later while returning, the presence of a few fellow birders including Vinod, Mohak and Chirag close to the road indicated that the bird had come much closer and I got a second chance at photographing it.

caspian-plover-underwing

When birdwatchers first saw this individual, the identification was a challenge as the Caspian Plover (which is a rare migrant to the region) is not easily separable from the Oriental Plover which would be a vagrant (outside the species’ breeding and migration range) to the region. The white underwing (as opposed to dark in the oriental) which they observed in flight was a key character in helping identification.

With this background, I knew finding this solitary bird over such a huge area was never going to be easy. Teams led by Adesh, Avinash, Clara, Mayuresh and Mandar scanned different parts of the area intensely, but to no avail. It was then decided to nevertheless continue with our regular birding rather than chasing after one bird. So we headed back to the narrow Dongri road that passed through Panje, planning to culminate our walk at the spot the Indian skimmer had been seen.

uran-birdwatching

Birders at Panje

The wetlands were absolutely chock full of birds. Huge numbers of waterfowl could be seen, and we even saw flocks of smaller waders further within. Accordingly, the scope was set up, and once again, we saw each species and discussed extensively about it. For example, we were lucky to see a few Eurasian wigeons and discussed its eclipse plumage (this is the drab form adopted by the males of a species outside the breeding season), and its identification characters such as the smaller, rounder head and grayish black-tipped bill. We also observed the wader flock seeing marsh sandpipers, common redshanks, ruffs, common greenshanks when Adesh announced that there was a spotted redshank in the group as well. We could manage a few glances of its bill (the base of the lower mandible of the bill was red, as opposed to both the upper and lower base being red in the common redshank) as well as its prominent supercilium (eyebrow).

We made our way ahead to check for the skimmer as well, but again it didn’t seem to be in the vicinity. Instead we focused on the other terns, with Adesh doing another pop quiz of focusing the scope on a particular tern, and asking different birders to take turns on identifying it (it was a whiskered tern, for those who remember it 🙂 )

Finally, it was decided to call it a day. The entire group gathered where Adesh once again mentioned there would be regular bird walks in the next few weeks, the next one being planned for Bhopar in Dombivli led by Kiran Kadam and a few other birders. Almost like a parting gift, we were all treated to the dark morph of a booted eagle soaring high in the sky.

Till the next bird walk, leave you with this image of all us happy birders 🙂

group-photo-mbc-uran-6th-nov16

Image credits: Capt. Haridas

Birding list from Jasai, Uran: https://goo.gl/GYn1if

Birding list from Panje, Uran: https://goo.gl/yyIrwU

How to get there

The birding hotspots in Uran are spread out over a large area. There are a number of different habitats, inundated marshes, reed beds, freshwater bodies and their dried beds interspersed with woodland and grassland habitats as well, and may well be one of the major reasons the area sees a particularly high diversity of avifauna. One can start near the Jasai marshes (Location of Jasai marshes: https://goo.gl/9q0F2c) to begin with. Note that once you get down from the road to go into the marshes on your left, the surface is boggy, so it is recommended to wear good shoes or sandals, and would always be better to have some company in case you get stuck somewhere.

From Jasai, when you head towards Panje, except for a short stretch on the highway, birding all along the route can be rewarding so it is recommended to drive slow here, keeping an eye out on the surrounding wetlands, grasslands and high-tension wires (We actually did see a common kestrel on our way back from Panje after the birdwalk, and the area is conducive to come across other falcon species as well from time to time).

Once you near Panje (Location of Panje: https://goo.gl/yN4V7F), there is a small road down the slope towards the Dongri road. There is a wide expanse of wetlands here, both on the left and right worth exploring. A small dirt path on your right would take you further inside the wetlands, you can also choose to follow the Dongri road. The drier parts of the wetland are good areas to come across plovers, larks, pipits while the inundated parts see huge flocks of waders and waterfowl (wader concentrations are likely to be greater close to the hours of high tide when they would fly in here from the coast). Because the typical terrain is flat and spread out, having a scope is extremely useful here to expand the range of spotting species.

Link to Mumbai Birdwatchers’ Club (Facebook group): http://goo.gl/FPnJgX

Mumbai Birdwatchers Club: Walk 1- Bhandup Pumping Station (and a quick detour): 30th October, 2016

bps-birding-2

It was during an eBird monitoring workshop conducted at the Mahim Nature Park in September that I first heard whispers. The Mumbai Birdwatchers’ Club (MBC) was being revived. Having only started birding in the last couple of years, I was not even aware such a platform had even existed. There were of course communities of birders spread out over the expanse of Mumbai, Thane, Vasai, Dombivli and Navi Mumbai out almost every weekend (if not during the weekdays too), but an initiative that would seek to unite all of us that followed these winged beauties throughout the year (Yep, even during the monsoon) made for an exciting prospect. Like any other social activity, birdwatching is also best enjoyed in a group, like-minded people using the combined power of their observation skills to maximize sightings of both species and interesting behavior and also sharing their collective knowledge gained by experience. An initiative aimed at aiding conservation of habitats under increasing human pressure, no fees would be charged for any of the walks, the purpose being to build a community of bird lovers who could consistently document avifauna by putting their checklists on sites such as eBird along with photographs.

So, it was great to finally hear of the first birdwalk being planned on the 30th of October, a Sunday at one of Mumbai’s most popular birding hotspots, Bhandup Pumping Station (BPS). The area is part of and synonymous with the recently established ‘Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary’ declared in August last year which itself is spread out over 1,690 hectares. It has been recognized as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by the Bombay Natural History Society, an initiative by Birdlife International to identify global avian diversity hotspots.  As its name suggests, BPS like its south Mumbai counterpart, Sewri serves as a congregation point for the famous flamingoes, including both the Greater and Lesser flamingoes. They can actually be sighted throughout the year, but the highest numbers are typically seen from November onwards going into the summer months. In addition to the flamingoes, BPS also supports an incredible avian diversity with more than 200 species reported from the area, including rarities for the Mumbai region such as the Pallid Scops Owl and Grasshopper Warbler.

The co-ordinators for the first birdwalk were Saurabh Sawant, Amey Ketkar and Rujuta Phadke, all respected senior birdwatchers that have spent many years documenting avifauna all over Mumbai, and over the rest of the country as well. We were meeting at 7:00 am, and I had decided to drive there, so I picked up fellow birders, Vikrant Chaurasiya and Yogesh Patel as well as Saurabh as we headed to the meeting point just near the entry point to BPS close to Airoli bridge near the salt pans.

bps-entry-1

While mail registrations had been sought, there were still a good deal of informal confirmations of arrival so it was unclear what the participation was going to be like. We reached the spot, meeting Amey and Rujuta as well at 6:45 AM, while waiting for others. By 7, a total of 25 people had gathered together, an ideal size that Saurabh, Amey and Rujuta were looking at for the group.

We then decided to make our way in. Finally, all of us reached the designated spot in BPS which is a tarred road with the Pumping Station on the right and the creek on the left. We also met with another senior birdwatcher who had already reached the spot, Mayuresh Khatavkar who was already actively birding pointing us to a large congregation of blue-cheeked and blue-tailed bee-eaters.

Without as much as a second thought, everyone had their binoculars and cameras out, and the avian treasures of BPS revealed themselves. A Yellow-eyed babbler skulking in the long grass, Baya weaver flocks foraging away along with Red Avadavats as well. Interestingly, hidden in the long grass, we spotted some migratory buntings as well. We got a second look at them later in the day too, however from the angles visible, were unable to see the characters favouring a particular species, photographs were taken, and it was best narrowed down to an immature red-headed/black-headed bunting.

A red-headed or black-headed bunting (immature)

A red-headed or black-headed bunting (immature)

Amey had brought along the scope as well, so we made our way along the dirt trail taking us further inside the creek. We could spot grey-throated martins (plain martins) flying overhead. Gradually, as we went closer, we could see huge flocks of waterfowl (ducks among which northern pintails seemed to be the most numerous), egrets, gulls, terns and black-winged stilts on our right. The air was abuzz with the calls of warblers as well.  Amey put up the scope and one by one, we had close looks at different species such as the slender-billed gull, grey heron, little grebe among others. There was also some activity further up ahead. Some of our fellow birders could see warblers. Saurabh was with the group, and to everyone’s delight, they were treated to close views of both the paddyfield and Blyth’s reed warbler. It was a great opportunity to compare the characters that separated the two species.

Paddyfield Warbler: The white throat and pale legs help differentiate this warbler from the more widespread Blyth's reed warbler

Paddyfield Warbler: The white throat and pale legs help differentiate this warbler from the more widespread Blyth’s reed warbler (Image by Mohak Katvi)

As we made our way back, on the opposite side which were dotted with mangroves, the group spotted more new species for their list on the day. A common snipe was feeding sheltered in the mangroves, and three different species of sandpiper, common, wood and green sandpipers were also seen. Once again, Amey, Saurabh and Rujuta guided the group on the different characters that separated each species, from the prominent supercilium (eyebrow) of the wood sandpiper to the white shoulder patch of the common sandpiper.

We made our way back on the tar road and decided to explore the road up till the end. White-eared bulbuls were almost continuously seen every few metres. A spotted dove stood watch perched in the high branches. And then the delight of most birders was seen, the Indian Paradise Flycatcher. Almost everyone caught a glimpse of the bird, though photographing it was a challenge as it moved in the canopy. As we headed further, we also spotted a house crow mobbing a western marsh harrier.

harrier-crow

Mobbing is an anti-predator mechanism where one or more birds dive-bomb, attack,harass a bird of prey such as this Western Marsh Harrier. The purposes could range from defending young to stealing food.

It had already been an incredibly rewarding walk, when I got a call from Vikrant at around 9:15 AM. Two more our company, Varun Satose and Aditya Akerkar were planning to head to Uran to catch a sight of the Caspian Plover, a very rare migrant which has only a few records from India, and had the birding circuit abuzz during the week. I had already been planning a visit, and I latched on to the opportunity as Vikrant had been to the spot the previous day. I took leave of the group, and we were also joined by another enthusiastic birder, Arun Varghese.

Long story short, we reached Uran by 10:30 AM and began our search for this elusive plover which has only a few records from India. It had been seen in the dried lake bed at Panje village. We soon came across the first of plovers, which were little ringed plovers in varying states of plumage. Further on, we saw Kentish plovers as well. Vikrant had seen the Caspian plover very close to the road the previous day, and the plover didn’t seem to be in the same area today. We went further in, and were also joined by some birders from our birdwalk including Mohak Katvi, Vinod Verma and Prathamesh Desai. On their arrival, we were rewarded by an osprey flying high up in the skies. As we went further in search of the plover, Prathamesh spotted larks as well which turned out to be Sykes’s short-toed larks.

Sykes's short-toed lark, a bird of typically arid habitats

Sykes’s short-toed lark, a bird of typically arid habitats

Unfortunately, despite our efforts, it seemed the plover had moved off. We were just on our way back, when Mohak got a call. His face immediately brightened, and I hoped for news of the plover. Mohak informed us it was not news of the plover but just about 100 metres from our present location, his friends Chirag and Nayana had  seen another coveted migrant. This endangered species was usually best seen in freshwater habitats with sandbanks, primarily in Madhya Pradesh. But even last year, one individual had made its way to Uran for a few days. We could not believe our luck! It would be a lifer for all of us. Which bird this was? Read on 🙂

Since we had missed on the plover, I decided to err on the side of the caution and didn’t get my hopes up high. We made our way to the location pointed out by Chirag and Nayana and soon spotted a huge flock of terns resting in the centre of a freshwater body about 70 feet away. We spotted Caspian terns, along with some smaller terns as well and not seeing the bird we expected to, again became concerned. Then, Mohak got an image on his phone from Chirag and we narrowed down the location based on the landmarks in the image.

And then, we see something. Varun and I were closest to the spot, and almost simultaneously we spotted the much darker head and body. And then it turned. And there it was, in all its glory, the Indian Skimmer.

indian-skimmer-blog

Easily separable from the rest of the terns, the Indian skimmer’s bright red bill is adapted for a specific feeding strategy. It flies low over the water with the longer lower mandible of its bill ‘skimming’ the surface of the water which it snaps up as soon as a fish is caught.

We took a few record shots and saw the bird in our binoculars to our heart’s content, delighted that our trip had in fact resulted in a rare sighting, even if it was not for the one we had intended. Being in a community of people who share the same passion could often result in unexpected rewards like these. My rendezvous with this Indian skimmer would never have been possible had I not joined the BPS birdwalk in the first place.

As we shared the good news with some of our friends at BPS, Saurabh also informed us of the amazing morning they had there. A total of 83 species had been spotted, and the group was treated to some amazing activity by Eurasian wrynecks!

eBird checklist for BPS birdwalk: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S32291492

 

How to get there

Bhandup Pumping Station is accessed close to the intersection of the Eastern Express Highway and the Mulund Airoli road. If coming from Mumbai’s suburbs, one needs to take a u-turn under the Mulund flyover and then take a left. You will see salt pans on your left.

(https://www.google.co.in/maps/place/Bhandup+pumping+station/@19.1551334,72.9570684,18z/data=!4m13!1m7!3m6!1s0x3be7b88e1fef5b87:0xbe0e3bfb117e8876!2sBhandup+Pumping+Station!3b1!8m2!3d19.1545709!4d72.9578194!3m4!1s0x0:0x1ca536f91dd7e347!8m2!3d19.153486!4d72.956509?hl=en)

Once you enter the road, keep following it until you reach the gate at the end manned by the forest department. Just before it, is a dirt track on your left. The condition of this road is questionable at best for the next 200-300 metres, and it is recommended to have a vehicle in good condition with high ground clearance, ideally an SUV before you once again hit the tar road further up ahead (Alternatively park your vehicle before the kachcha road). Birding is rewarding all along this road, and there is a trail opposite the pumping station which takes you further within the creek offering better viewing opportunities especially for waders and waterfowl. Close to high tide is the best time for viewing waders, but since there is a good mix of woodland and grassland habitat as well, even early mornings regardless of tide timings can be quite rewarding.

Link to Mumbai Birdwatchers’ Club (Facebook group): http://goo.gl/FPnJgX

Jamnagar- A Birder’s Delight

 

Crab-Plovers-B&W-900

It was still dark outside when the alarm rang at 6:00 AM on that nippy morning in December. A couple of minutes later, I got my wake-up call from the front desk as well, at the Hotel President in Jamnagar. I had arrived here last night via Rajkot, extending my trip by a day after a business trip to Morbi. The reason? It had been a call a few weeks ago from a family friend of my wife. My wife’s friend, Manisha is a school teacher and her husband, Mukesh a doctor in the army, and they had recently moved to Jamnagar based on the good doctor’s peace tenure and they had dangled the proverbial carrot in front of me, by insisting that I must visit, not only to meet them, but to come and witness the spectacular migratory birds that visited this town and its outskirts during winter. And when I found that work would take me to Morbi, I realized Jamnagar wasn’t far, so why not?

And so the trip was planned, I checked with a few of my friends on the possible locations and species to scout for. All of them though, had one common piece of advice, if you are visiting Jamnagar for bird-watching or wildlife photography, look no further than Hotel President, looked after by the affable Mustakbhai, a passionate birder himself. Its location in the heart of the city, makes visiting all birding hotspots convenient, especially the hotspot located within the city itself, Lakhota Lake, situated at walking distance from the hotel. But more on that later. I rang up Mustakbhai and told him of the plan; I would just be in the city for a day, leaving by the latest flight in Rajkot, which was at 7:40 PM to Mumbai. (Jamnagar too has a direct flight to Mumbai, unfortunately for me, it was in the middle of the day, and not conducive to my plan). I explained that I intended to cover as much as possible during the day and also told him of the species I was on the lookout for photography. Patiently, he explained to me all the spots to travel to, and since he was travelling on those days himself, also referred me to Kunal Joshi, an expert who had been leading birding expeditions for years in the Jamnagar area, also spending some time of the year in the Himalayas, leading expeditions there as well. I relayed my discussion with Mustakbhai to Kunal as well. On my arrival in Jamnagar, I met both Manisha and Mukesh for dinner, and after telling them of my plans for the next day, both of them decided to accompany me and Kunal as well for the morning part of the trip.

After the morning ablutions and quickly ensuring all my gear was in place, the hotel staff supplied with me with a much-needed hot cup of tea, and I met Kunal downstairs. We reaffirmed the plan, and Bababhai, our driver, an experienced hand who was quite enthusiastic when I had told him of our day’s travel plans, brought around the car as we made way to our first destination, the Balachadi Beach

Balachadi Beach- Plover Paradise

In my discussions with Kunal, I had requested to check possible locations for one species in particular, the Crab Plover, a beautiful large wader uncommonly seen in India, but known to congregate on the coastal outskirts of Jamnagar. Mustakbhai had already recommended to visit the Narara island in the Marine National Park for these. Unfortunately, the tide timings on the day were not conducive to visit Narara which was a fair distance away from the city in the morning, which is why Kunal suggested to amend the plan for our early morning visit, to Balachadi beach, a short 30 minute drive from the city. How this decision played out, you’d see soon. As we drove past the city and into the countryside, we saw a herd of nilgai moving about in the wee hours of the morning. A flock of Great White Pelicans flew overhead, towards some mangroves as we headed closer to the beach, and my anticipation levels grew wondering what was in store for us. Kunal had indicated earlier he was hoping there wouldn’t be a crowd since it was early morning on a weekday, so hopefully we could see peak bird activity. We weren’t disappointed as we reached the spot with the vast expanse of beach in front of us. I could see a congregation of black-and-white birds in the distance, and many others as well, that too with not a human being in sight!

Balachadi-beach-1

Dawn at Balachadi Beach

We stepped out, and while Manisha and Mukesh hung back, watching the birds through binoculars, Kunal and I started making slow progress, closer to the birds. Once we were within range, Kunal stayed back to give me pointers on the bird’s movement as I crept slowly ahead. The closest crab plover flock was on a small sandbank surrounded by ankle-deep water and as slowly as possible, I moved closer. Once I reached the sandbank, which had a small incline, I lay flat hoping for the birds to move closer with the increasing tide. Kunal signaled from the back, the birds were moving towards me, and I saw a couple peek their heads over the small incline examining the strange object lying flat on the bank. Time passed, but no luck. Slowly, I doubled back to increase the distance between the birds and me, and carefully rose so I could look over the incline. They didn’t look troubled, and I managed a few shots, when together, they all took to the air, an amazing spectacle standing just feet away from them.

Crab-Plover-Close-Flock-flight

Crab plovers in Flight

The small flock I was close to, joined another larger flock some distance away, and for a few moments the entire group circled the sea beyond before returning back to their roost on the beach. Quite satisfied, I returned, and Kunal also suggested to check some rocky parts of the beach where we might find other interesting waders. A 15-minute walk later, and we were extremely well rewarded finding some coveted winter migrants such as Eurasian Oystercatchers, Grey Plovers, Terek Sandpipers among many others.

Eurasian-Oystercatcher

Eurasian oystercatchers have a prominent white neck collar in non-breeding plumage, much like these individuals

 

Peep-&-Plovers

A mix of sand plovers and sandpipers 🙂

The backdrop of the deep blue of the Gulf made all these graceful birds look even more striking. While photographing these, lady luck smiled on us as well as even a few Crab Plovers flew in to rest nearby. As the sun rose, thoroughly sated with the morning’s discoveries, we made our way back to the city to visit another hotspot.

Lakhota Lake- Urban oasis

There is no missing this landmark once you enter Jamnagar city. Located in the heart of the town, this lake with a small palace (now housed as museum) in its centre is certainly one of the iconic images of Jamnagar. The surprise, however comes from its avian diversity. Over 75 species (and the number may be higher) can be sighted at this lake, and it is particularly a haven for waterfowl, a variety of migratory ducks coming in from Western Europe and Northern Asia, to winter here, in the warm waters of the lake.

Lakhota Lake

Lakhota Lake

On our quest, were two of these migratory species, the Mallard and the Tufted Duck, both species migrating from countries such as Iceland & Russia to here in India during the cold winter. Manisha and Mukesh returned to their duties for the day, and also asked us to stop by for a quick lunch at their place, after our search at Lakhota. As we reached one of the gates, we noticed that some construction work was underway at the lake. I found that the lake itself has been in the eye of a controversy lately, as the Jamnagar Municipal Corporation had went ahead with work on the beautification of the lake. This was contested by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and the Lakhota Nature Club, that the ‘beautification’ would damage the unique heritage and natural environment. Subsequently after much back and forth, the Gujarat High Court did finally lift the stay and the beautification work has resumed and it remains to be seen whether this is going to harm the original environment in the long-term.

We could see some of the congregated waterfowl in the lake, but were quite far, hence Kunal guided us to a point from where we could make our way closer to the lake banks. As the sun blazed overhead and we made our way closer to the lake, we scanned for our target species. We could see Great Cormorants, Common Pochards, Northern Shovellers, all winter migrants and even resident species such as the Comb Duck. Black and Brown-headed gulls, Eurasian Coots and Indian Spot-billed Ducks were particularly numerous in the lake environs. Pelicans are also regularly sighted at the lake, unfortunately we did not come across them.

Waterfowl-group

Spot-billed ducks, Eurasian coots and black-headed gulls

Finally, Kunal spotted a small group of tufted ducks swimming in the distance. We made our way closer to them, but had to sit and wait for them to arrive closer to the lake banks. Meanwhile, a White Wagtail, another winter migrant provided some photographic opportunities as did some of the other lake residents. Soon enough, a group of tufted ducks too came within range, the unusual tuft of feathers in the manner of a crest prominent on some of the individuals.

Tufted-Pochard-Profile

The prominent crest seen on the darker male tufted duck

 

Tufted-Pochard-Wing-Display

A female tufted duck flapping away, showing the broad white patch on its wings known as the speculum

We searched for the Mallard as well, the male of which has an iridescent green head with a bright yellow bill which makes for a brilliant sight, but neither the male nor the female were forthcoming that day, and our search revealed no signs.

As the sun reached its zenith, I realized we had to keep some time for our third destination as well, so after exiting the lake, we walked to the Hotel President for checkout and for then made our way for lunch at Manisha and Mukesh’s home. A very tasty Sindhi lunch later, replete with papad, we made our way to Narara Island, situated within the Marine National Park.

Narara- Corals, Birds and so much more

I had blinked off for a few minutes, after that tasty lunch as Bababhai ensured a smooth ride to our next destination situated 60 km away from Jamnagar city, the Narara island situated in the Marine National Park. The park has been the first of its kind in India, a protected marine reserve, and possibly one of the very few places in the country where you can come across marine life, with nothing but your feet in contact with water. The park is composed of a network of 42 coral islands, however the most famous of these known to visitors are Pirotan and Narara. Pirotan, accessible from Rozi port, had not been accessible to the public in recent times, and though there is now word of it now being opened again for selected visits, during my short whirlwind trip, we kept our foray restricted to Narara.

The preferred time for most travellers to visit the park should be during low tide, as this is when you are most likely to come across marine life such as hard and soft corals, a variety of crustaceans and molluscs including crabs, lobsters and octopus, as well as other marine life such as starfish, sea anemones, mud skippers and puffer fish. Stingrays are also occasionally seen, and further offshore, dolphins and the rarely seen dugong, an enigmatic marine mammal also sometimes known as the sea cow, based on its grazing behavior of seagrass. However, since one of the objectives of my visit was to document the avian diversity, our visit was timed more with the high tide receding so that the birds would not be very far off.

Narara-1

When entering Narara, one passes through mangroves before accessing the area where corals abound.

After entering the park gate and completing the due formalities, we began our exploration of Narara. Slowly but steadily, the sandy terrain with mangroves gave way to the rocky hard coral. Shoes are an absolute no-no here, and the recommended footwear is sandals.

On arrival, we came across various bird species indulged in feeding. It was amazing to witness how each of the waders have adapted to suit a specific niche of feeding habitat, sand plovers with their short beaks feeding on tiny marine life situated on the surface, while Eurasian Curlews with their long curved bills, often looking for similar prey, but probing much deeper into the sand.

Eurasian-Curlew-flight

A Eurasian curlew in flight

We could see the stars for this trip, the Crab Plovers also feeding in the distance. However, the nature of the terrain made closer approach here difficult. After a few tries, we decided to keep a greater distance from the birds here compared to Balachadi in order to not disturb them. This did work, as I was privileged to witness an amazing interaction between an adult and juvenile Crab Plover, as the adult caught a crustacean in the shallow waters, and walked towards the juvenile, placing its caught prize in the juvenile’s bill, feeding it.

Crab-Plover-feeding-juvenile

Crab plover adult feeding juvenile

I came across other waders here as well, increasing my list of species seen to include the Curlew Sandpiper and Sanderling. Both these species are known to feed in coastal environments, and it was good to see them thriving in this protected area.

With my flight at 7:40 PM at Rajkot, we decided to make a move. On the way out, Kunal pointed to a spot close to the entrance of the park, where earlier the same year, an extremely rare winter migrant, the Grey Hypocolius, the only known species in its family, had been seen. Usually this species was known to be visible during winter in some restricted spots of the Kutch and nowhere else in the country, but it was good to hear this rarity had been spotted at Narara as well.

As we made our way back, I noticed another group of beauties feeding in the saltpans close to the entrance of the park, Greater Flamingoes. I took a few shots as keepsake, and Kunal got down to have a look as well. He smiled and asked me to look to their right. A small dark bird was swimming alone in the waters. A peek through the binoculars confirmed it to be a Black-necked Grebe, another species I had never seen before and a rarity as well. This individual was far, but a short drive ahead, we spotted another individual which was closer. I quickly made my way to get a closer shot, when another surprise! A huge Dalmatian pelican was resting close to the water’s edge. Delighted, I clicked away, adding it to the image kitty of the amazing diversity of species I had come across here in Jamnagar.

Black-necked-Grebe

Black-necked or eared grebe

 

Dalmatian-Pelican

A Dalmatian pelican at Sunset

The short duration of my visit meant that I could only experience a little of the beauty Jamnagar has to offer. Areas like Khijadiya sanctuary, and amazing phenomenon such as the spectacular flying formations of rosy starlings (known as murmurations) around Lakhota Lake were just a few of the things I missed out on, which I hope to cover soon on my next trip there.

Equipment: Nikon D5300, Nikkor AF-S 80-400G ED VR

(The above is a slightly modified version of the article published in the March 2016 issue of the magazine, ‘Travel Touriosity’)

Communing with Nature: BR Hills, Karnataka, India

Indian scops owl hollow BR Hills

It was late evening on our 3rd safari, and I had squeezed myself in the gap between the two seats on our jeep, crouched, pointing my camera lens slightly upwards. Light was falling, and I was thanking my stars I had brought along the bean bag for additional stability. Along with my wife and the other co-passengers in my jeep including our naturalist, Nataraj, we silently waited for the sleeping head to rise..

But that’s just me rushing to the one of the highlights of our trip to the Biligirirangan Hills, Karnataka (locally known as Biligiriranganabetta). We had decided to forego our annual trip to one of India’s wildlife reserves during our anniversary, opting to combine a longer trip post the Christmas weekend extending into the New Year. We would meet inevitably with our cousins to celebrate New Year’s eve during the latter part of our journey in pristine Wayanad. But before that, had to be our alone time in the jungles! And after much debate and discussions, we finally settled on the Kyathadevara Gudi Wilderness Camp, BR Hills. Why this particular choice? For one, it was a JLR (Jungle Lodges & Resorts) property and every nature enthusiast who has visited Karnataka’s wild havens will swear by the outstanding location and knowledgeable staff that make staying in any of JLR’s properties a special experience. Many of India’s present day well-known photographers and conservationists have actually served long stints as JLR naturalists, and that is just a reinforcement of the service levels you are promised.

There were two other reasons we had chosen K Gudi. One of them was that both Kabini and Bandipur, owing to the relatively easier access would be seeing a far greater rush of visitors on the holiday weekend, something I discussed with Toehold’s Harsha Narasimhamurthy who assisted us with the booking of our trip. The second, and what really sold us, were the experiences shared by past visitors, both on Tripadvisor and on forums such as India Nature Watch. The BR Hills in spite of being declared a tiger reserve in 2011, have never been very well-known for sightings of big cats and other mega-fauna, but this is more than made up by the incredible natural beauty of the place, its diversity of birds and the amazing location of the K Gudi Wilderness Camp, bang within the tiger reserve with wildlife moving freely through the campus. This is because the JLR property was established in 1994, well before this was declared a tiger reserve and it is only now that in consonance with guidelines, the property may be required to shift away from its present location. Yet another reason why we wished to visit this treasured gem of JLR as soon as possible.

Our log hut, Chamundi at night.

Our log hut, Chamundi at night: Located at the edge of the campus, surrounded by forest and no fences, this is for visitors who wish to get intimate with the wild

Biodiversity

The BR Hills play host to a stunning biodiversity, courtesy their strategic location between the Western & Eastern Ghats, and this can be easily seen in the incredible variety of habitats, ranging from dry scrub to broad-leaved deciduous forests. It’s an absolute pleasure to wander here discovering the area’s natural beauty, which changes character from the yellowish-brown hues of the foothills, to the dark green sunlight-dappled canopy of the higher elevations.

Sunlit BR Hills 1

Surely one of the greatest attractions of the BR Hills is the incredible diversity of birds, and while estimates vary, at least over 250 species are known to reside in these verdant hills and these include endemics of the Western Ghats such as the Rufous Babbler, Malabar Parakeet, Grey-headed Bulbul. Rest assured, if you are a birder, you are going to be one happy camper.

BR Hills is a good destination to catch sight of the Blue-bearded Bee-Eater, usually found in the vicinity of broad-leaved forests.

The BR Hills are a good destination to catch sight of the Blue-bearded Bee-Eater, usually found in the vicinity of broad-leaved forests.

The smaller life-forms abound here, with a multitude of species of spiders, scorpions, dragonflies, damselflies, and over a 100 species of butterflies and moths including India’s largest butterfly, the Southern Birdwing and rarities such as the Sahyadri Painted Courtesan. The reptile and amphibian diversity here needs further documentation, but there can be no question that the area is a potential hotspot for the same. Microhyla sholigari, an endangered species of narrow-mouthed frog was described from here in the year 2000, and there are even reports of a possible caecilian species. Another new bush frog species, Raorchestes honnametti sp. nov. was recently described from here. (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0149382)

Was lucky to come across this Southern Gliding Lizard, an endemic of both the Western & Eastern Ghats, displaying its bright yellow dewlap within the K Gudi campus.

Was lucky to come across this Southern Gliding Lizard, an endemic of both the Western & Eastern Ghats, displaying its bright yellow dewlap within the K Gudi campus.

As regards mammals, this habitat particularly represents an important area for India’s largest land mammal, the Asian elephant, supporting one of its largest populations in the Eastern Ghats. Owing to its crucial location within the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, the area remains one of the most important from the conservation perspective of this species. Tigers, another umbrella species, are also also said to be doing well with estimates putting the numbers here at over 50 individuals inside BRT reserve. These forests provide a home to many other charismatic species such as leopards, wild dogs, sloth bears, gaur, rusty spotted cat, Indian giant squirrel, the Indian tree shrew and every visit to the forest gives you a chance to get a glimpse of these treasures.

True to its nature, this shy barking deer or Indian muntjac bounded off seconds after we laid eyes on it

True to nature, this shy barking deer or Indian muntjac bounded off seconds after we laid eyes on it

Amazing encounters

On our arrival at K Gudi, apart from the daily safaris, my wife Deepi and I would spent most of the day, at the serene little sit-out of our log hut, Chamundi, her with binoculars and me with the camera, watching and photographing those flashes of beauties that including a variety of flycatchers, drongos, leafbirds, nuthatches among many others.

The flamboyant Orange Minivet is a resident species on campus, and is often active through most of the day

The flamboyant Orange Minivet is a resident species on the K Gudi campus, and is often active through most of the day

The Blue-Capped Rock Thrush is a winter visitor here, but can be frequently spotted in campus from October to March

The Blue-Capped Rock Thrush, a winter visitor to South India, is also a frequent sight here from October to March

As if the diversity of birds hadn’t been enough, we would get a surprise on our first day itself, a surprise I wish I had been better prepared for. Post our evening safari and some snacks, we had returned to the log hut late in the evening around 7:30 PM. After keeping our gear, I stepped out, flashlight in hand, to do a quick scan of our log hut surrounds. There was no barrier behind our log-hut and the forest, so wildlife moved freely. My flashlight caught the eye-shine of two dark shapes resting about 15-20 metres away from our log-hut. Their size and dimensions seemed to suggest the ubiquitous wild boar we had seen all day at campus. Nevertheless, I asked Deepi to retrieve a pair of binoculars to confirm. While this was happening though, both the animals rose to move, and as they rose, suddenly up went long quills on their back. Porcupines! I dashed into the room, to retrieve the camera, but these shy animals had already retreated into the undergrowth by the time I could manage a shot, leaving me no record of the sighting of this elusive nocturnal species. A missed opportunity for a capture on my camera, but at least the image in our minds would stay with us.

And yes, getting back to the beginning of my story, it was our 3rd safari during another lovely evening in the BR Hills. The sightings as always, were not as plentiful as you might see in some of the other popular reserves, but with the forest bathed in golden light, it was still a pleasure to drive through this wilderness, punctuated by the odd shy barking deer and flocks of hill mynas. The sun was setting on the horizon, when we chanced upon another jeep parked at an intersection. As always when this happens, there was a sense of anticipation as we neared closer, except this time, it was not just the feeling of anticipation we’d take back. Because as our naturalist silently pointed to a network of branches and leaves mid-canopy, my eyes just didn’t form, but saw rosettes. Without a moment’s hesitation, I peeked through the lens of my camera to the spot about 10 metres further in, and saw the form that every wildlife enthusiast longs to see. A gorgeous sub-adult leopard was enjoying an extended afternoon siesta. I looked at my wife, Deepi, big happy grins on both of our faces as we exchanged glances. After a few clicks, I borrowed her pair of binoculars as well to just enjoy the sight of this secretive cat. And it was only after a little bit of waiting, that the leopard sleepily raised his head, gave us a piercing gaze, looked into the distance, and resumed his lazy evening, dozing off again.

Leopard Eye Contact 1

One thing you have to be prepared for, when you travel here is to not carry the same expectations of sighting wildlife, as you would say, in nearby Kabini. Courtesy the invasive lantana which has unfortunately taken over much of the reserve, and which the forest department continues to battle, seeing wildlife is not easy here and which may disappoint some visitors. The key here is enjoying the wilderness as it is, thick and unpenetrable perhaps in vision, but thrumming with life, evident as we warmed our limbs near a campfire at K Gudi late one evening, and somewhere in the distance, a sambar deer persistently called out its alarm, and once, just once, a loud ‘Aaaaaaongh!’ punctuated that silent winter air, a reminder that the big striped cat roams these wilds.

Stays in the BR Hills

Presently for visitors on a budget, some modernized homestays include the Rajathadri Hill Villa and Giridarshini, the latter actually is a well-known landmark here, a popular eating joint set up here since the 1950s, which has since expanded to offering stays as well.

For a more intimate experience, the resort Gorukana run in conjunction with VGKK (Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra) is a good bet. A mix of cottages, tents and tree houses aesthetically designed with most modern amenities, visitors can be assured of a comfortable, luxurious stay here. The indigenous Soligas form the bulk of the staff here, and their knowledge sharing along with the resort’s community development initiatives can make staying here a pleasure.

Spotted Deer or Chital, freely move in K Gudi grounds, much like this stag with velvet antlers

Spotted Deer or Chital, freely move in the K Gudi grounds, much like this stag whose antlers are still in velvet, soon to develop into sharp tines or points

Undoubtedly though, BR Hills’ most well-known and popular place to stay is JLR’s Kyathadevara Gudi Wilderness Camp. A mix of tented cottages, log huts and 2 family rooms, located about 20 km further in from the forest checkpost, passing by the beauty of the forest (drive slow and keep your eyes peeled), among K Gudi’s greatest strengths is the incredible location. The proof is in the roaming herds of chital, curious wild boar that might surprise with their close approach, the absolutely stunning variety of birdlife which would make you question whether you should leave the camp at all for birding and yes, nocturnal visitors as well including predators indicated by the nightly alarm calls, and should you be carrying a flashlight and a bundle of luck, by the sight of a large feline form, more often the one with rosettes, all of this within the grounds of K Gudi. The amazing location is further supplemented by the warm service of the staff and the credible guidance of the knowledgeable naturalists. Food is simple, homely and one shouldn’t expect a great variety of cuisines.

JLR Jeep

Another major advantage with staying at K Gudi, is you can avail of the JLR jeep safari. Most visitors staying outside would anyway have to come to the forest department quarters situated next door to avail of the jeep safari on a first come, first serve basis, whereas if you’re staying at K Gudi, it is included in your package, and while there are no specific time limits, with JLR’s safari, you do end up spending more time inside the forest (approximately 1.5-2 hours) within the prescribed time band, something nature enthusiasts would appreciate. You can of course, also choose to explore the forest around K Gudi on foot with the help of one of the camp’s guides. Physical fitness would be recommended, as the initial climb on the designated trail can be a bit strenous, though well worth the effort courtesy the scenic views you get once you ascend the rise. In case you’re staying for more than 2 nights, they also arrange for an excursion to Lord Rangantha’s temple at no extra charge. Jump at this opportunity as along with the cultural heritage, it is another chance to explore the forests of the BR hills, which you will pass through. Price-wise, this would be definitely considered in the higher end and it is one of JLR’s more premium properties, however, it remains for the traveller to decide how much bang for the buck K Gudi provides, especially considering the camp’s possible shift in the near future.

No matter where you stay though, exploring the wilderness here is a pleasant experience all year round, every journey a balm to the soul.

Sambar stag path

 

How to reach there
Travelers to the BR Hills most often access the area via Bengaluru (approximately 200 Km, a 4.5-5 hour drive) and Mysore (approximately 80 Km, 2-hour drive). A few flights and plenty of train options are available, connecting Bengaluru and Mysore. The third option, a few visitors avail of is Coimbatore, located at approximately 175 Km. The distance makes Coimbatore the most accessible international airport, however, do check flight timings and taxi rates if hiring a private car (inter-state taxes can vary according to the vehicle), as typically most visitors like to reach BR hills before late afternoon, so they don’t miss the opportunity for the evening safari. The nearest railhead is Chamarajanagar, situated about 25 Km away. If coming by road directly from Bengaluru to BR Hills, it is recommended to come via Yelandur, and in case of Mysore, via Chamarajanagar.

Equipment used: Nikon D5300, Nikkor AF-S 80-400G ED VR, Nikkor 18-55mm (kit lens)

Chitwan – A Treasure of the Terai

(The following is a condensed write-up of the article published in the Saevus magazine, July 2015. The visit took place during March 2015)

Fishtail Peak-Himalaya
Finally, a clear day! Our spirits had been dampened due to 2 days of unseasonal cloudy weather, hailstones and rain in Pokhara, Nepal. We had been disappointed on not getting a clear view of the famed Annapurna range, but today morning as we began our journey, the majesty of the Himalayas would be revealed to us. An open ground where locals were playing soccer and zipping around in scooters, rolling hills in the distance, were all dwarfed by the sheer scale and size of these snow-clad monoliths. Humbling to say the least! Apart from this wondrous sight though, there was one more reason I was elated to wake up to bright sunshine, we were heading to the destination I had been looking forward to the most during this trip with my family; The Royal Chitwan National Park. It was not my first visit here, however there were only faded memories of the trip made more than 15 years ago. And as some searching online a few months before had revealed,  I realized Chitwan had changed since then. Once a destination only for those seeking the solace of the wild, it had transformed into a major tourism hub. The iconic lodges located inside the national park had closed, surrounded by much controversy, being charged of harming the park’s ecology. And now, much of the tourist infrastructure had shifted to bustling Sauraha, currently the main park gateway.

I was a bit nervous, as my search for the Sauraha properties had not left me with any satisfactory options. I was intrigued however, more by a hotel that was away from Sauraha, located in Meghauli, by the name of the Barahi Jungle Lodge. To my pleasant surprise, I found that their management had recently undergone a change, and was now being looked after by Pugdundee Safaris, a well-known Indian safari lodge chain and after their considerable consultations with their representative, Abhay, I went ahead with the booking for my stay there in March.

The last hour of our drive was an exceptionally bumpy one and would give one’s bones a good shake, but the moment we stepped inside the property, I was delighted because I saw my family’s worries sliding away. Varun, the vastly experienced hotel manager, welcomed us at the entrance and walking us through, briefed us about the property, introducing us to our designated naturalist, Subhash Gurung, the lodge’s youngest but one of its most experienced naturalists. Making our way to the rooms, memories of the unspoilt Chitwan I remembered came flooding back, with the hotel’s cottages presenting a stunning view of the Rapti river and the elephant grass of the national park beyond with no human habitation in sight. It’s as if nothing had changed.

Barahi Landscape View

The Park’s Lesser-Known Treasures

Chitwan has so much to offer, and this is in addition to the well-known species many visitors come seeking. Courtesy the time we had visited the park, we were fortunate to see the Palash or its more famous name, Flame of the forest, in full bloom, attracting a host of birds including parakeets, bulbuls, sunbirds among many others.

Palash

As we would drive through the sal forest habitat (comprising about 60-65% of the park’s ecology), Subhash pointed out a giant creeper,  known as the left-handed vine (Spatholobus parviflorus), and it was an awe-inspiring sight seeing this strong climber wrapping around its host.

Left-handed vine

There is also no doubt about Chitwan being a birder’s haven. With over 540 species recorded in the park, putting it in the league of among the best in the subcontinent, it is also home to one of the most critically endangered birds on the planet, the Bengal Florican. We made frequent forays to its preferred habitat many times but without luck. However, the bird sightings overall were absolutely marvellous. Sightings such as the Green Magpie, White-tailed Stonechat, Lesser Adjutant, Oriental Pied Hornbill, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, and Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush kept me highly motivated. We often heard the call of the Great Hornbill and on the last day, I was lucky to catch a fleeting glimpse of it.

Grey-headed fish eagleWhite-tailed stonechat

The park also houses over 40 species of reptiles, and over 11 species of amphibians in the park. The most well known among the reptiles are undoubtedly the King Cobra and the two species of crocodilians, the Marsh Mugger and the Gharial. I was lucky to catch a sight of a basking mugger near the access point of the hotel itself, while we had to go deeper within the reserve, to pristine sandbanks to catch a sight of the critically endangered Gharial.

Mugger- Near Hotel Access Point to ParkGharials

The population of Gavialus gangeticus in the reserve is expected to be about 75-80 individuals and their numbers are seeing an upward trend post the setting up of the Gharial breeding centre at Kasara, new litters are introduced into the park every year.

The Big Boys

Every visitor who comes to the park, undoubtedly is on the lookout for its most charismatic species. Numbering over 500, the second largest single population of the species, the greater one-horned rhinoceros is the most sought-after target, and with such numbers in the park, the chances for close encounters with this iconic animal are always high, more often encountered in the grassland and riverine habitats.

Rhino stream feeding

Elephant sightings are uncommon here, and one is more likely to encounter them in the neighboring Parsa wildlife reserve to the east or Valmiki Tiger Reserve in Bihar to the south. It’s not clear why herds have not moved to permanent residence in the park, as the sightings that do sporadically occur are of the lone bulls.

Among the ungulates residing in the park, are four species of deer, the chital/spotted deer, the sambar, the indian muntjac/barking deer and the hog deer, all of which can be frequently sighted. The four-horned antelope is also known to reside here, but is seldom seen. Largest of all the bovine species, the gaur, number close to 300 here in the park. Sightings are not as frequent though, as they often reside in the hilly, inaccessible areas of the park. Come spring though, co-inciding with the peak of their breeding season and the annual grass-clearing that is carried out in the park, they descend to the lowlands and this is a good time to see the familial interactions of gaur herds, led by a matriarch keeping a watch on curious calves. Solitary bulls will vie to get the attention of these wandering female-driven herds.

Gaur pair

Among the canids, the ones you can come across are the jackal and if your luck holds, the uncommonly seen dhole/Asiatic wild dog, a species undervalued by most visitors, it can be an utter delight to see pack behavior of these efficient predators. Three species of bear (Family: Ursidae) are known to inhabit different habitats in Nepal, and the one you would come across in Chitwan is the familiar bear of the majority of the Indian subcontinent, the sloth bear. We were fortunate to come across one shuffling through the grasslands on a jeep safari.

Finally, that leaves the two species visitors probably wish for most, but few ever get a sight of, the two big cats: The tiger and the leopard. Chitwan’s expanse, the nature of the habitat and the continuous army patrolling make sightings of these big cats difficult. However, if luck is in your favour, then who knows?

Exploring Chitwan

One of the best parts about Chitwan is the sheer range of options through which one can explore the forest. Apart from the elephant and jeep safaris, one could explore Chitwan on foot and by canoe. Both are exceptionally good for bird-watching and for observing the park’s smaller treasures, as you can move at a leisurely space and keep your eyes peeled for any movement in the foliage. The former though is not for the faint of heart, as mock and even unrestrained charges by rhinos though rare, are not unheard of, and while the guest is usually safe as the guides are well trained to handle such encounters, there have been a few isolated incidents where things have gone awry, though the guest has always been safe. Otherwise though, there cannot be a better way to be at one with the wilderness.

Walking in the elephant grass

The canoe ride of course is a delight for the entire family, a sunset ride is guaranteed to make you a nature romantic, all with the continued thrill of spotting wildlife, finally culminating into a confluence point of the rivers Narayani, Rapti and Reu where you can watch the sun dip below the hills.

Early morning boatSunset

Even with those two great ways to explore however, the most popular one in Chitwan irrespective of where you stay, has to be the elephant safari. Through an average duration of 1.5 hours, these giants will take you through the rich habitat of the community forests, a multi-purpose area for both forest produce collection and eco-tourism run by village committees (As many as 9 such areas are currently demarcated throughout the park). Wildlife is as diverse as in the core of the park, and seated in the all-terrain vehicles that are the elephants, this is possibly the best way to have close encounters with large mammals as evidenced by the following image of our experience with a female Indian one-horned rhinoceros.

Elephant Safari-Rhino Encounter

Besides the elephant safari, another popular way of course is the jeep safari. Here in Chitwan, this is possibly the most expensive option, but as many regular safari-goers would opine, nothing can beat this medium in terms of sheer reach and coverage within a short space of time.

Early morning jeep

Moreover, the thrill of tracking a predator when you come across signs is an experience as many would know, one that is guaranteed to get your adrenaline racing, your heart jumping every time a shadow emerges from the forest onto the dirt track.

Black and White: Wild Boar crossing

Surreal Sightings

In an endeavor to explore the park, we had undertaken an extended jeep safari on one of the days, and late in the morning at around 11:00 AM, we were heading to the Tiger Tops Lodge (the hotel is closed for the moment, being managed by a skeletal staff till the lodge’s future became clear) to take a break and avail of our packed breakfast. My wife, Deepi and brother Nikhil were with me, and we were sitting relaxed looking forward to a nice calm breakfast. As we rounded a bend, suddenly, it was as if time slowed down to a trickle. We saw an animal crossing the road not 15 feet in front of us, it crouched, turned to look at us, I saw rosettes, my brain simply refused to take in the reality of the sighting, my wife stood up in slow motion with mouth agape, and the driver braked the car to a halt! All this must have happened in that exact sequence in a space of 1-2 seconds, because before I could even focus my lens on the leopard (I quite literally have a shot of an empty spot where it was crouched), it shot off from the road into the undergrowth making its way through the dense foliage of an undulating hillside. Subhash kept his eyes sharply trained on the animal, and I was ruing I was not going to get a shot of this elusive cat. Fortunately, as it made its way up the hillside, we saw the rosettes again and for a few seconds the leopard seemed to stop to regard us. Knowing that autofocus would struggle, I switched to manual focus and fired off a few shots focused on its body. Soon I saw part of its head, and before I could try again, it was gone. After we were sure it was gone, Subhash turned to us and said, ‘Leopard!’, and all including Subhash had a good chuckle on that. It had all been so fast. When I checked my click later on, I was elated to find two large eyes had also been trained on us. One of the lodge’s naturalists had ascribed the title of the ‘Ghost of Chitwan’ to this secretive cat, in the nature orientation at the hotel. No kidding!

Leopard

On our final morning, my mother, father and brother were looking forward to the India-Bangladesh World Cup match, and Varun and team had very kindly made arrangements for them to watch the same. My wife was quite tired from our extended safari on the previous day. We had a late flight from the airport that afternoon, so there was a chance for me to plan one final foray into Chitwan’s wilds. I had spoken last night to Varun and Subhash, and they encouraged me to go on a morning jeep safari with Jitudai, the hotel’s most senior naturalist. Two other ladies, guests of the resort were scheduled to go with Jitudai, and so I joined them. As we set off that morning to the calls of a stork-billed kingfisher, we passed through a riverine forest patch. As the forest gave way to the grassland, suddenly there was a burst of chital alarm calls. The driver turned off the ignition and we listened, rapt in attention to the direction of the calls. We were possibly around 40 metres away from the source of these calls emanating from the grasslands. The calls continued. Some predator seemed to be out and about. The next moment, another loud sound erupted from the grasslands, ‘Aaaooonghh!’ and it would have looked to the two ladies that both Jitudai and me had been exposed to a mild electric shock. Both of us jumped on top of the railings of the jeep to scan the grassland. There was no question in our mind anymore about what had been spooking those chital. About 15 metres ahead in the grass, we saw movement, expecting to see a terrified chital. Instead, for the briefest second, we saw a large striped head and the swish of a striped tail, as the orange and black of its moving body melded perfectly with the dry elephant grass. All we could see was elephant grass parting as the tiger made its way deeper into the grassland. Once it disappeared, both Jitudai and me chuckled silently, incredulous expressions on both our faces. There was a bit of disappointment for me laced with that chuckle, there had been no shot possible. But a sighting is a sighting, and that deep, reverberating call was going to stay with me as a keepsake even if I could never truly share the awe it inspires. As we moved on, I was still enjoying those treasured moments, though a stubborn part of me still had a finger on the shutter-release button. Suddenly, about 20 metres ahead, I saw a dark shape extricate itself from the grassland onto the road. The driver had not seen it, and Jitudai was still scanning the grasslands on our right. Whatever that animal was, it was going to disappear in a matter of seconds to the grasslands on the left. So on the moving jeep, I stood up on top of the seats, did my best to focus on the dark shape and fired off shots. Hearing the shutter clicking, Jitudai followed my gaze, and in the most hushed yet excited tones possible, exhorted the driver to get closer to the shadow. We reached at the spot just in time to see the tiger disappearing off into the grasslands to the left, and for a second an upturned tail near a Silk cotton tree, a signal it was spray marking before finally disappearing again.

Tiger-Chitwan

A good way to end my amazing time in Chitwan? My wife had playfully teased me on that very morning as I had left for the safari, ‘Tiger dekh kar aana, nahin toh vaapas mat aana! (Go see a tiger and come, or don’t come back!) Chitwan’s bounty had given me one last treasure to take home with me 🙂

How to get there & Stay:

Chitwan National Park, located in Central Nepal, is most often accessed by road from Kathmandu, a distance of approximately 150 km. Pokhara, another popular tourist destination is located at a similar distance. Chitwan can also be accessed by air, with local flights from Kathmandu to Bharatpur airport, from where depending on the location of your stay, it takes between 1-1.5 hour. It has as many as 9 gates for access, however the one used most commonly is Sauraha, followed by Kasara (also the location of the park HQ) and Meghauli (Bhimle). There are hotels catering to a variety of budgets in Sauraha who will offer packages suited to your needs, inclusive of elephant safaris (only government-owned elephants can enter the park core, all privately-owned elephants can only access the community forests), jungle walks, jeep safaris, elephant bathing sessions etc. For more intimate and luxurious experiences, a combination of new properties and the old ones located formerly in the national park area, have shifted operations just outside the national park close to community forests. Barahi Jungle Lodge, Kasara Resort and Tiger Tops Tharu Lodge are a few examples.

Equipment used: Nikon D5300, Sigma  70-300 APO 4-5.6 DG

It’s a Frog’s World- Part 2: Munnar, Kerala

Ghatixalus Asterops Juvenile 600
Continued from the previous post….

The next day we made our long road journey to Munnar, a land of tea plantations set amongst the grand Anamalais. Here we would be met by two amazing researchers, both of whom we had heard much about, Lilly Margaret and Sandeep Das. Varad, through the course of his studies throughout the country, had managed to convince these two to take some valuable time off their research projects to join us and impart their collective knowledge.

We met Lilly first, well known for her work involving the study of amphibians in modified landscapes. As she would elaborate, tea plantations have been in Munnar as long as 1890, and along with eucalyptus formed the dominant landscape in and around Munnar. Yet as her work was beginning to show (and we would soon see first-hand), anurans here were resilient, and had not only survived but adapted and flourished. She was also very specific in her objectives for us. Sure, she would do her best in showing us the diversity of amphibian species and the identification and behavioral aspects to look for, but we were also to be trained in basic monitoring and study techniques so we could be employed as resources in surveys for the future.

As many in the field are aware, herping is best carried out at night when the animals are most active, so after freshening ourselves up in the accommodation Lilly had arranged for us, we congregated near the road bordering a few tea plantations in the night. Lilly and now, Sandeep joined us as well. Sandeep’s reputation preceded him, he was already well-respected by many researchers and experts of the country in batrachology (study of frogs and toads) for the extensive work he had done in the Agasthyamalai range for various species, key among them, Raorchestes chalazodes. During the course of our walk with Sandeep, he introduced us to an interesting line of thought. Frogs, especially of the Raorchestes genus might have specifically adapted to suit the ecological niche in each range of the Western Ghats. An example would be Raorchestes tinniens, which had occupied the grassland niche in the Nilgiris, which Raorchestes dubois occupied in the Anamalais. Similar was the case for Raorchestes ochlandrae in Wayanad, and Raorchestes chalazodes in Agasthyamalai. Built from this foundation, he provided a framework for identification of anura. Field identification (aside from certain unique morphological characters) of anura can be based on two facets: geography and bioacoustics or calls (It is also noteworthy to mention however that amphibian identification now is seeing an increasing reliance on DNA and phylogenetic studies, and while morphology or physical characters still occupy an important space in the area, the former have come to gain greater weight in describing a species in recent times).

Over the course of the night, Lily and Sandeep’s penchant for finding frogs would leave us spellbound. Without much difficulty, they tracked the frogs using a combination of visual and auditory cues, and we saw a stunning variety of frogs, including Raorchestes dubois (Kodaikanal Bush Frog), Raorchestes chlorosomma (Green-eyed Bush Frog), Raorchestes kadalarensis, Raorchestes jayarami (Jayaram’s Bush Frog), Raorchestes beddomi (Beddome’s Bush Frog), Nyctibatrachus Pucha (Meowing Night Frog) as well as a Fejervarya sp. (Cricket Frog) [The genus of Fejervarya in the Western Ghats has been hotly debated in the last few years, there have been quite a few papers published on the subject. Morphological characters of the fejervaryan frogs of the Western Ghats, and the rest of the country and South-east Asia were both proposed and contested. Until a few months ago, cricket frogs of the Western ghats fell into two genera: Zakerana and Minervarya. However per this recent paper (http://biotaxa.org/Zootaxa/article/view/zootaxa.3999.1.5), both this genera have again been synonymized with Fejervarya. ]

Raorchestes chlorosomma

Much like other restricted-range species, the Green-eyed Bush Frog (Raorchestes chlorosomma) is a critically endangered species occurring in very specific habitats in Munnar.

The highlight of the night surely had to be our sighting of Ghatixalus asterops (Star-eyed Tree Frog). We saw the individual making its characteristic bird-like call on a moonflower plant (Datura sp.) overlooking a stream. Locally common, we took this specimen for closer study and observation, and it turned out to be a juvenile.

Ghatixalus Asterops Juvenile Body

In this case, this juvenile Ghatixalus Asterops (Star-eyed Tree Frog) shows extremely different color and patterns from the adult.

This species has also been seen in different morphs, and this juvenile looked totally different from any textbook illustration we’d seen (We would see the adult the next day too), but its arresting feature were definitely the brilliant eyes, fine lines emanating from its pupil across the iris, the colors getting reversed in the adult morph. What a frog and what a night!

Ghatixalus asterops adult 600

The adult Ghatixalus asterops, They are strong climbers as evidenced by their well-dilated fingers & toes (digits). The current range and status of species is still not fully known.

The next day Lily devoted some time to give us a brief and some practical experience on monitoring techniques. While there were a number of methods utilized in the field and possibly each of the textbook methods had to be adapted to suit the landscape, she emphasized that integrity of data was essential. Hence the sampling and data collection techniques had to be chosen with care. As a test exercise, we were asked to create a 5X5m quadrate in a eucalyptus plantation. After our collective efforts in creating one, when Lilly said she had been using 20X20m quadrates for her study across plantations along with only 1 more person, we were left flabbergasted.

That night, our quadrate study didn’t yield much amphibian activity. However, outside of our study area, we were able to find another species for our trip, Raorchestes griet.

Raorchestes Griet 600

Raorchestes griet is another threatened species, a small reddish-brown bush frog with spinular projections on its back and a fairly loud call.

Post our sighting, we quickly reported back to Lilly’s station where Sandeep had prepared a short presentation on one of the most enigmatic amphibian species in India, a frog that had garnered worldwide attention, Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis, the Pig-nosed or Purple Frog. The first formal description of the adult specimen was by Dr. Biju and Franky Bossyut in 2003, and while initially thought to be rare it is now being increasingly found in various localities. However, due its burrowing nature, it is seldom seen, but Sandeep along with his team members had managed to get some fascinating insights about its breeding behavior. It seems that most individuals of this species within a particular locality would come out of their subterranean homes for a very short window of time, re-instating its status as an enigmatic species. While we were listening, apparently Lilly had stepped out and said she had gone looking for a ‘surprise’. Our barrage of questions to Sandeep was put to a stop when Lilly re-entered. And while perhaps it is puppies or other baby mammals, which elicit compliments of cuteness, what we saw in front of us was surely a very strong candidate. It was a froglet of Rhacophorus Pseudomalabaricus known as the Anamalai or False Gliding Frog. We’ll let the picture do the talking for this find.

Rhacophorus Pseudomalabaricus froglet 600

Finally, we went on our last night walk. Impossibly, we had covered nearly all the anuran species found in this locality save for a few. And almost like a clichéd Bollywood happy ending, we would end up with two more of the remaining ones. While walking, Lilly suddenly stopped as if she heard something and scrambled into the nearby Eucalyptus plantation. Scrambling back, she held in her hands, the adult Pseudomalabaricus. Astounded, we studied the characters.

Rhacophorus pseudomalabaricus adult

This species is differentiated from its more famous cousin, Rhacophorus Malabaricus by a few subtle features including the light stripes on its dorsum (malabaricus will often have tiny black dots), and lacking the red or pink seen in the webbing on the fingers and toes.

We started the trip with wynaadensis, so it only seemed fair we ended with its compatriot, munnarensis. While wynaadensis belongs to the Pseudophilautus genus, munnarensis belongs to Raorchestes, though both can classified as bush frogs.

Raorchestes munnarensis 600

A larger frog than most of its cousins with well-developed dilated discs on its limbs, we came across this individual pretty much in its type locality, often seen in low-lying vegetation near tea estates.

As we wound our way back, we took stock of the sheer magnitude of learning during our visit here. The revelation of so many concepts in the field of amphibian study was truly illuminating. In fact, Lilly had mentioned some concepts such as site fidelity (where the same individual of the species is seen year on year occupying the exact same locality), which she along with Sandeep had personally observed, and these required further study and validation. Batrachology in India is at a ripe stage for the entry of those enthusiastic in pulling the veil of this still under-studied class of organisms. Given their specialization and their ability to adapt to specific ecological niches, frogs will remain a vital part of our further studies to understand ecosystem services as they serve as indicator species and hence the conservation of microhabitats must be carried forward with equal care and conviction as with larger landscapes. Just like tigers, conservation of frogs on a micro-level will help in conserving other biodiversity as well such as this Large-Scaled Pit Viper (Trimeresus macrolepis).

Large-scaled Pit Viper 600 2
Equipment used: Nikon D5300, Sigma  70-300 APO 4-5.6 DG

It’s a Frog’s World- Part 1: Wayanad, Kerala

[The following story is from a visit in October 2014, have done my best to add updates per October 2015 :)]

Ochlandrae shadow eye

‘What crazy looking eyes!’, we exclaimed as we pored over the field guide of the ‘Common Amphibians of Kerala’ by P.S. Shivaprasad, moving along the bumpy roads outside Calicut, driven by our Keralite Schumacher, Majeedji.

For the 7 of us traveling together, the past few months had already been a roller-coaster ride. Dr. Varad Giri, one of the most well-renowned Indian herpetologists, had started a 4-month course dedicated to amphibians in June for those interested in the same, regardless of their background, as part of his initiative of the Western Ghats Regional Station to raise a fresh crop that could participate in further studies of this little-known class of organisms. All our notions and perceptions of amphibian identification had been shattered in the last few months. We would recognize that color and pattern are weak identification marks because both frogs and toads have the ability to change the above in relation to their environment. In some genera such as Micrixalus [a class of frogs known as foot-flagging or dancing frogs], the same population within the same locality will have several different morphs.

And the reverse occurs as well, specimens that look similar might be entirely different species. All this in an environment where taxonomy was undergoing continuous review. Phew! Which is why us novices had to rely on several other characters, the body shape, the fingers and toes, the tympanum (the external hearing structure of frogs and toads), texture of the skin, presence of glands, shape of the snout, underparts and yes, the eyes. The study of these characters and the specific measurements were taken using a digital caliper we would learn, came under the term, ‘morphology’. Such characters can only be studied well when the specimen is at close quarters, so unlike birds where observation at a distance can be sufficient for identification, one often has to catch the frog. This requires extreme care, and the correct technique is essential in order to not cause any injury to the frog; this we had been learning in the past few months.

This motley crew was now making its way to the evergreen treasures of the southern Western Ghats to Wayanad, and from there on to Munnar. Sahil Latheef, one of our fellow participants in the programme, was also our host for this trip. We had already taken good advantage of his hospitality by digging hungrily into the huge lunch spread at his family home in Wayanad. And though half-sleepy, we were incredibly excited as we made our way to the Malabar Wildlife Sanctuary. Sahil had done an amazing job of coordinating with the forest department and the ZSI (Zoological Survey of India) office there. When we had arrived, it seems some of the local media was quite abuzz with our visit. Apparently, our visit had prompted the forest department to organize an official ‘Frog Watch’ in conjunction with ZSI, and several more interested students and volunteers would be joining our small foray.

As we reached the Kakkayam forest gate and unpacked, the evening air was already filled with the croaks and whistles of our objects of study. Just a few meters from where we stepped out, we came across one of Wayanad’s iconic species, Pseudophilautus wynaadensis or the Wayanad Bush Frog.

Pseudophilautus wynaadensis

Endemic to the Western Ghats like many other bush frogs, the Wayanad Bush Frog was re-validated in 2001 as a distinct species. This particular male was advertising its availability for mating.

After observing it for a while, we proceeded and met up with the other participants of the programme. Dr. Jafer Palot of ZSI gave a brief round of introductions and also elaborated on the amphibian diversity of the area while Varad talked about the objectives of our visit there. Undoubtedly, we were all on the lookout for one of the most charismatic amphibian species of India known from its type locality (the area from where a species is first described) here in Kakkayam, Raorchestes ochlandrae or the Ochlandrae Reed Frog so named for the Ochlandra setigeri reed brakes it inhabits. However, it was a difficult frog to find at the best of times, so we would have to take our chances.

We started from the get-go, trekking into a patch of reed beds. Wet evergreen forest, moist leaf litter and a humid environment meant we were soon donating a few pints of bloods to the local collectors, leeches. As we plucked them off, we came across our second amphibian find, a Nyctibatrachus sp. (possibly kempholeyensis)

Nyctibatrachus sp

‘Nycti’ in Latin translates to night and batrachus ‘frog’, as this genus of frogs is primarily nocturnal. They are also sometimes known as ‘wrinkled frogs’ given the characteristic wrinkly skin seen on their dorsum.

Not having any luck with the reed frog, we proceeded to the main trail once again, and came across several other anuran (the combined term for frogs and toads) species: Clinotarsus curtipes (Bicolored Frog), Euphlyctis Sp. (possibly cyanophlyctis, Skittering Frog), Duttaphrynus parietalis (Ridged Toad), Microhyla Sp. (Narrow-mouthed frog), Raorchestes akroparallagi (Variable Bush Frog), Rhacophorus malabaricus (Malabar Gliding Frog) as well as 2 different Hylarana sp. (Golden-backed frogs) [Hylarana as a genus of frogs has undergone major taxonomic churn, this genus now has recorded splits in the Western Ghats into two different genera, Indosylvirana and Hydrophylax, the latter referring to the Fungoid Frog, which has since been further split into two species]

Microhyla Sp.

Microhyla spp. in India are commonly known as narrow-mouthed frogs and can often be seen around human habitation. The genus is from the family, Microhylidae which are also collectively known as narrow-mouthed frogs globally. In the Western Ghats though, the other genus of Microhylidae, Uperodon, are most commonly known as Balloon Frogs due to their stocky appearance.

Euphlyctis sp.

Another common frog, most likely to be seen in small stagnant ponds and puddles are species of the genus, Euphlyctis or Skittering Frogs. Powerful hind limbs and heavily webbed feet in the individuals of this genus are indicative of their swimming prowess.

Needless to say, we were already quite satisfied with the amphibian diversity of the place. But Lady Luck had decided she was going to be incredibly generous with us that day.

Soon, one of the students who had joined our trail thought he might give a go looking into some reed hollows in a small patch near the path. After a few seconds of searching, he shouted ‘Ochlandrae!!’ We rushed to the spot and wonder of wonders there it was, looking at us with those psychedelic eyes. This celebrity’s time had come, and soon enough was surrounded by adoring paparazzi (yes, that includes us!). Little is actually known about this frog. In its description paper by K.V. Gururaja, K.P. Dinesh, Jafer Palot, C. Radhakrishnan & T.V. Ramachandra, the scientists had observed egg clutches of this species in hollow reeds, and with both the male and female seen nearby, it was hypothesized they may be indulging in parental care as well [This indeed was the case for another reed frog species, Raorchestes chalazodes from Tamil Nadu, where parental care by the male was observed and similar reproductive behavior has been ascribed to Raorchestes ochlandrae: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bij.12388/abstract. ]. With new reed frog species being discovered, there is increasing curiosity whether these frogs represent an even further specialization among bush frogs.

Raorchestes OchlandraeOh, and did I mention were not done yet?

Extremely happy with our finds, we nevertheless moved to one of the nearby streams. We quickly came across the frogs we had expected to find near fast-flowing streams, Micrixalus sp. or the dancing frogs. Their foot-flagging behavior has been well recorded by scientists and natural history observers, and hence the attribute of ‘dancing’ (Video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOdwvrn7ors).. We didn’t witness this behavior, but several of them hung on to rocks here with their well-dilated digits.

Two different morphs of the same species, Micrixalus saxicola (Small Torrent Frog).

Two different morphs of the same species, Micrixalus saxicola (Small Torrent Frog).

And that was when we heard another shout….

We reached the spot where Dr. Jafer Palot had taken one specimen for collection. Smiling, he pointed to some rocks on the upper parts of the stream. And we could not believe our eyes. We had not expected to come across this species at all, it was restricted to riparian evergreen forest and was known from very few localities. Standing in front of us, for all the world looking unconcerned was a Ghatophryne sp. or a Torrent Toad.

This animal looks like a relic from another time, and though it has the warty appearance of a toad (the warts are known as tubercles, and are actually glands that produce secretions, which are often designed to repel predators), it has a sleeker and thinner appearance. The genus is endemic to the Western Ghats, after it was separated from the similar-looking Ansonia of South-East Asia based on molecular and phylogenetic (phylogenesis being the grouping of species based on their evolutionary history) studies, adding to the already rich store of endemic amphibian diversity here. This individual did give us a peek of its feeding habits, when an unfortunate ant blundered too close, and was snapped up for a quick snack.

Ghatophryne Sp.

Thoroughly sated with the night’s discoveries (18 species in all), we reached home late with the realization this was only the beginning of our trip.

Will be sharing the latter part of the journey at Munnar soon 🙂

Guide: The Malabar Wildlife Sanctuary is accessible from the main gate at Kakkayam (approximately a 2.5-3 hour drive from Calicut) and one simply needs to take a ticket from the counter there to enter the forest. Exploration here inside the sanctuary is possible only by foot and the forest staff there are quite helpful and enthusiastic to guide new visitors.  During the monsoon, the area is a paradise for those with herping interests with several species of reptiles and amphibians, the area is a known haunt of the world’s largest venomous snake, the King Cobra. Bird diversity is also incredible here, with some estimates pegging the number at 180 species including Malabar Trogon, Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, Ceylon Frogmouth (which we did actually see, a bonus sighting during our ‘frogging’), Malayan Night Heron, Legge’s Hawk Eagle among them.  Butterflies too abound, the Malabar Natural History Society had recorded 142 species in their last survey including the Pale Green Awlet, Pointed Line Blue and the Sahyadri Small Palm Bob. Many of the mammals of the Western Ghats are also present here including tigers, elephants, gaur and there are even endemics such as the Lion-tailed macaque and Brown Palm Civet, however visibility for all mammals is low owing to the largely dense foliage and limited access. However, the scenic beauty of the evergreen forests, small streams and waterfalls here are sure to not leave nature lovers disappointed.

Equipment used: : Nikon D5300, Sigma  70-300 APO 4-5.6 DG

Encounter with Lady & Luck- Satpura National Park, Madhya Pradesh

(Edited Version of the below write-up was published in the Sanctuary Asia Feb. 2015 issue, the below encounter took place in November, 2014)

Dawn broke at the Churna FRH in the Satpura National Park, Madhya Pradesh. We were up and pretty excited already; in our time here, apart from the wealth of birdlife such as the Indian Eagle Owl, Scarlet Minivet, Yellow-footed Green Pigeon and mammals such as sloth bears, gaur, sambar, Indian giant and flying squirrels, we had been very lucky in getting a coveted sight of Satpura’s enigmatic tigers. It was barely for a few minutes the previous evening, in the process of waiting at a particular spot shown by our guide, Rameshwar (who on a previous day’s patrolling inside the forest, had seen a mother along with two cubs). After about half an hour, we had spied a cub deep within the lantana undergrowth.

Cub evening

The instant he saw us, he took a few quick sips of water, and disappeared again, keeping the ghostly reputation of Satpura’s tigers alive. Such an elusive sight was satisfying on its own; we had been further emboldened however; en-route Churna, we had come across the tracks of a big male, likely Sidhu, a tiger re-located from Bandhavgarh that had made the Churna range his home. Aly Rashid, Owner-Naturalist at Reni Pani Jungle Lodge, had a quiet optimism about him that morning. As Rakesh, our driver, started the engine, my wife, Deepi and me pulled on our caps and wrapped our mufflers as the chill of a November morning welcomed us. Nearly an hour into the drive, to our surprise, we noticed Sidhu had actually used the same path late last night, headed in the same direction as us the previous evening.

Pugmark of Sidhu

As we drove away from Churna, and with no other signs or alarm calls, our hopes of seeing a tiger again that day started to melt with the day’s sun. A barking deer, a juvenile gaur, a lesser yellow nape and a brown-capped pygmy woodpecker were the only notable sightings thus far.  As a last ditch effort, we once again reached and waited at the same spot we had seen the cub the previous evening. We were the lone jeep; this park allowed only 12 vehicles inside at a time, and not everyone went for the Churna excursion which was a fair bit longer than the safari in the Madhai area. Silence and no calls or pugmarks; nevertheless, we chanced our luck waiting, and to everyone’s excitement, after a few minutes we heard rustling deep within the undergrowth again. They were still here, as Deepi pointed out some quick movement, and Rakesh saw the cub sprint across behind the bushes. Aly and Rameshwar spotted the second cub as well moving about, and soon all of us for a few seconds, enjoyed the grand walk of the mother as she walked along an opposing ridge only to disappear again. Langur alarm calls started further up the hillside. They were going to walk away, we assumed. Aly then suggested an idea; why not get off the main road and just park around the bend. We’d still have a good idea of where the alarm calls were coming from, and the road would be empty if they wished for more accessible movement. Tigers, as most visitors to forests would know, tend to use forest roads quite a bit, especially for traversing long distances. The calls subsided, followed by silence. We waited and then 10 minutes later, again heard rustling, twigs breaking. And then a ‘thump’! Cautiously, we rolled around the bend and as we turned, I grabbed Aly’s arm in excitement. Because, big as life, there was the mother tigress sitting 15 metres from us bang on the road!

As the car gently moved around the bend, this was almost a surreal sight, seeing a tiger at such close range in Satpura!

As the car gently moved around the bend, this was almost a surreal sight, seeing a tiger at such close range in Satpura!

Aly and me clicked away, as the contented mother sat yawning in the late morning sun

Tigress Yawn

Soon though from behind her, we saw movement, and the first cub popped its head behind her.

First Cub

He walked boldly, came close and nuzzled his mother giving us a moment of pure delight as he crouched protectively around her.

One of the two frames I was lucky to get during this encounter, both of which would give me immense joy :)

One of the two frames I was lucky to get during this encounter, both of which would give me immense joy 🙂

Soon, the 2nd cub entered the scene and we smiled, happy that we had finally seen the whole family. Or had we? Rameshwar exclaimed excitedly ‘Teen hain!’ as he peered through the binoculars. No one, including the forest department, had heard of a 3rd cub. Our surprise quickly changed to alertness, as the mother raised herself from her comfortable lounging spot and started walking……towards us!

Mother+2 cubs Tigress Moves Closer

Rakesh had never been so close to a tiger before, and all of us, including Aly who has seen tigers elsewhere walk past the park gypsies nonchalantly, were unsure of her behavior as most tigers here were not as familiar with the jeeps, that too when she was with cubs. The decision was made to reverse the jeep, and give her the right of way, but there was a slight problem. We had braked on a slope when we first saw the tigress not wanting to disturb her by getting any closer, and now both, her and the cubs were walking towards us. So, as Rakesh attempted to go the other way, the jeep lurched forward, towards the tigress! Her demeanor changed, and suddenly her body was tense, in a half-crouch! All of us were suddenly a bit fearful, we wanted to give her way, but the opposite was happening. Thank the stars, Rakesh did not lose his cool and he wrestled with the jeep to get into 4-wheel drive mode to reverse the car, as we parked ourselves in the Jhinjhini mahal junction (the same spot around the bend we had parked earlier), leaving the main road open for her. The tigress relaxed, and she walked calmly past us, followed by her…wait, what?? 4 cubs! Rameshwar was beside himself with joy, and all of us stared in awe. No one in the park had any idea of 3, let alone 4 cubs. When was the last time anyone had seen 5 tigers together in Bori-Satpura Tiger Reserve?

Tigress spraymarking

Unfazed by the excitement, the tigress casually spray-marked on the trees as she walked past us. The 4 tiny tots (maybe not so tiny, by Aly’s estimate, they were around 10 months, close to the size of an adult leopard) followed in behind her. She walked on ahead, and gave a bit of a turn back to look at us, and that was the opportunity for me, Aly and Rameshwar to freeze into a frame one of the most amazing sightings ever here at Satpura, and which would prove to be a valuable record for the forest department.

Satpura tigers

On our return journey, Rakesh was so dazed with our sighting, he did not speak a word all the way back, even when we saw three wild dogs zip across the road. In contrast, Rameshwar was glowing with glee, while Aly’s face had relaxed into a wide smile. Deepi was grinning everytime she looked at me, and I still could not believe what I had seen. The mood was joyous on our return to the Madhai camp as well, once we shared the news with the forest department members. You could tell that all those invested in the protection of this park, celebrated this event with nearly as much vigour, as a newborn in their household. Based on our pictures, we would be informed a few days later that this was a resident tigress, born in Satpura who 2 years earlier had been seen mating with another male here. It was likely she hadn’t conceived then, but she had more than made up with this baby boom.

There is a good deal of debate on tourism pressures in many of the renowned parks, some of the viewpoints are often not entirely unjustified. But if lady luck is present, as she was on that day, there comes a time when both tourists and the forest department can help in spreading a message. Give tigers their space, they need nothing else 😀

A Quick Guide:
Satpura National Park is part of the Bori-Satpura Tiger Reserve, a true ambassador of the beautiful forests of the central Indian landscape. For the wildlife enthusiast, sightings of megafauna are plentiful, and the park is known more in the past few years for its sightings of sloth bears and leopards. Tiger sightings are generally rare, but on the rise due to the relocation of several individuals from Bandhavgarh. The central Indian or southern Barasingha now also calls Satpura its home, a small population from Kanha was shifted here recently, and the exercise will be ongoing.

The Dhoopgarh peak, the tallest of Madhya Pradesh, inside the national park area is a unique habitat, that of the central Indian Sub-Tropical Hill Forest, the only one of its kind, complete with a mix of tree species of mixed deciduous forests and a healthy growth of evergreen species as well.

Birders are going to have their hands full, with over 250 reported species. Apart from the Chambal sanctuary, this is one of the few places in India where visitors can get sightings of the Indian skimmer, classified Vulnerable by the IUCN, but which is witnessing serious decline due to disappearing habitat. The best time to see them on most occasions is the end of February-March. Butterfly species are plentiful, as are reptiles and a few species of amphibians.

How to get there:

Satpura National Park is accessible via road from Bhopal (on average a 4-4.5 hour drive) which is the nearest airport. The best accessible railheads are Itarsi and Hoshangabad, the drive to the Madhai gate in regular traffic conditions would be just over an hour.

Where to stay:

We stayed at Reni Pani Jungle Lodge so will certainly vouch for it being one of the best wildlife lodges in India, they have been an award-winning property many times in the past. It is a luxurious property, but everything here is dedicated to maintaining an ecological balance with the surroundings. The buffer forest in Sohagpur around Reni Pani is also rich in biodiversity. Rusty Spotted Cats, Leopard Geckos have been seen in the lodge grounds, and leopards, sloth bears, and even a tiger have been within the radius of a few km of the property. The naturalists in the lodge are top-of-the-line, a warehouse of natural history and photography knowledge including the owner, Aly Rashid, himself.
Similar options which are also well known are the Forsyth Lodge and the newly opened Denwa Backwaters. For more budget-friendly options, a few properties such as Tawa Resort and Madhai Resort are available. Another great option is to stay at the Madhai or Churna Forest Rest-houses, Madhai has a fantastic view and Churna will take you deeper into Satpura’s wilds. These can be booked by getting in touch with the forest department. It’s always recommended to book safaris beforehand due to limited vehicles here, which can be booked via the MP tourism site. Visitors can also explore the park via speedboat, canoe, jeep and on foot as well!

Equipment used: Nikon D5300, Sigma  70-300 APO 4-5.6 DG